As someone who deals regularly with the concept of codependency, it means I have to deal with the concepts of child development too. Let’s face it, the way we grow up, where and who with, are all major factors in the root cause and development of codependency as a behavioral issue. Of the factors mentioned above, who we grow up with is probably the most important of all.
As children, we really are stuck and the idea of leaving our family is impossible, so we find ways to cope and develop strategies to survive. Thinking of codependent traits as adaptive is a compassionate way to look at them. They served us well as children but adults who can see the roots of the codependency more clearly, can choose to take a different path. Parents weren’t able to meet their children’s needs but this doesn’t mean that the child is flawed. What it does mean is that, that child may go into adulthood still trying to prove his/her worth through every small action it can. That is codependency!
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The idea that our parents let us down is difficult for us to accept and we often justify it by saying they did the best they could, given the tools at their disposal. These tools were learnt by being exposed to their own childhood and the parenting style they were subjected too. Parenting is generational and parents parent how they were parented because that was the only thing they knew. This left them bereft of knowledge on how to parent effectively. While this can be used as a justification for ineffective parenting, the consequences are felt by the child. All parents make mistakes but some mistakes are bigger than others.
However, what is often forgotten is how sensitive children are to the environment around them. An environment created by parents and consolidated by the parenting style chosen. In this environment, children develop and carry any issues forward into adulthood. That word there, little criticism there, that lack of attention and supervision through to outright neglect and abuse will have an effect on the way a child sees the world and more importantly, how he/she views himself/herself.
Another factor is the way children generally view their parents. Children do not have the reasoning skills to determine what a good or bad parent is. Comparison only comes later when they identify more with peers and notice differences in the treatment of their friends by their parents. Up until this point, children often see their parents as “god-like”. This is thought to be the case even if parenting is extremely toxic. They simply cannot fathom that these “gods” would say or do anything that could be wrong, insulting or abusive. They believe that what they say and do is correct and can be justified as it is them who said and did it. We all had this feeling in childhood that they knew what they were doing, only to come to the realisation later that they clearly didn’t. It cannot be stressed enough the responsibility that comes with parenting. We will all make mistakes but learning the basics of child development and the effects of ineffective parenting will certainly help.
The consequence of the above is that children believe everything that is done to them and said to them is their fault and these “perfect” people beat them, abuse them, ignore them, neglect them because they are bad. Children carry this idea forward into adulthood and into every future relationship they have. In therapy, they justify their parents’ actions, even the worst, by claiming they “deserved” it or their parents “were keeping them in line” or “they did the best they could”. They still hold the image of “god-like” parents who could do no wrong.
Imagine the scenario that a child growing into an adult goes into a relationship believing they are “bad” or “wrong”. Children, under the best of circumstances, develop primitive defence mechanisms and behaviour when they feel their security is at risk. Under abusive and neglectful circumstances, these are extreme. Whatever the severity, children will do their level best to be liked or loved by their parents or they will withdraw completely. These mechanisms turn into the way we think and behave as adults, namely Thinking Parts. Often in conflict, in adult relationships, we are transported back to earlier times through being triggered, often behaving in the same way.
Breaking the link with past dysfunction is never easy and is often ingrained in us in forms of habitual behaviour and automatic reactions that we often regret later. This is often consolidated by parents who either deny or justify their influence when asked later, placing the responsibility back on the child. However, awareness is a great thing and once that is found, effective measures can be taken to help.